September 21, 2015 Interview – Chuck D of Public Enemy
The voice channeled within art can be one of the most powerful forms of expression on the planet. The poetic nature of Hip Hop can convey a message both deep, profound, and inspirational. For social commentary Hip Hop band Public Enemy, it was never a choice of if they should express their thoughts on society, but how they would go about it. Blazing onto the the scene over three decades ago, Public Enemy not only made an impact with their music, but could be considered pioneers of solidifying Hip Hop does, and should, covey a message. Attaining three platinum selling records, two gold selling records, being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 2013, and continually creating well into the new millennium, Public Enemy shows no sign of slowing down. More of an international entity than anything else, Public Enemy still packs a punch in 2015 that sends shock waves across the globe with their recently released thirteenth studio album, Man Plans God Laughs. Recently we sat down with legendary MC and co-founder of Public Enemy, Chuck D, for an introspective look at their music, the short-sighted outlook of corporations in the music industry today, preserving the true meaning of Hip Hop, and much more.
CrypticRock.com – Public Enemy are perhaps one of the most legendary Hip Hop groups of all time, having attained massive success while staying true to your beliefs and message. Tell us, how redeeming is it to see the impact Public Enemy has made on music as well as society?
Chuck D – Well, I think if we have ever looked back on saying something, if it didn’t happen, it wouldn’t have happened. When Public Enemy got our passports, we set off into the world hardcore, like nobody else before, and we were able to play in places like London as a world base opposed to something like New York or LA. Going around the world was the saving grace for keeping Public Enemy vibrant for over twenty-eight years. It is a bigger world than there is a country. Being here, we would have been stuck in the United States of America.
CrypticRock.com – Absolutely, the band certainly has become an international entity, like you said. It is really amazing how it has taken off all over the world. You have never shied away from social issues. In fact, the band’s honest and thought-provoking lyrics are the cornerstone of the music. At what age did you start to really become socially aware of the inequalities and hypocrisies surrounding much of our culture?
Chuck D – Well, I was born in 1960, so even from zero to ten, they were unavoidable. I came from parents who were quite open about explaining to me what I was seeing. Also, to add to the fact, when Hip Hop came along and Public Enemy did its first record, we understood that we could take that conversation to a higher place. I was 26 or 27 years old, so obviously there was a responsibility of figuring out how we can make the two match. How you can use Hip Hop and make it say something that we didn’t invent in music. People like Bob Marley, Nina Simone, The O’Jays, Gamble and Huff, and we could go on. They were all our heroes and they had been doing it for years before. If they found ways to make the music move you, and also have something in the music that you can take from it, and it wasn’t that hard of a template to follow.
CrypticRock.com – They all paved the way for bringing such a message in an artistic way.
Chuck D – Yes, well you know, it is like the Bobs: Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, and Bobby Womack.
CrypticRock.com – Exactly, now, mainstream Hip Hop, which we see and hear on television, and, commercially sold, has really dramatically changed through the years. It seems as if there are so many issues to be addressed right now in society. In fact, there are probably more than ever, and it seems like nobody is speaking about in commercially sold Hip Hop. Why do you think that there is a lack of knowledge being spread within the current, younger Hip Hop artists?
Chuck D – It all has to do with what the company is saying. If the company is saying green is the only thing that matters, it doesn’t matter – black or white or issues. What keeps them in business is green and they think that they can just come up with something that will appeal to little kids, and the age demographic is getting lower and lower and more simplistic. There is something to a youth audience, but there is also something to a youth movement. I don’t think they are taking that into consideration.
Also, I don’t think they have taken into consideration that there are a whole bunch of people that are involved with Rap music, and Hip Hop that has been part of it and has followed it for the last thirty years. So, appealing to these people who have jobs and the ability to vote people in and out and make decisions for their community, are also Hip Hop fans. It’s been jazzed for the last twenty-five years. It is just a terribly bad job by corporations that happen to run TV, radio, and also the recording companies that these people are a part of. You have the film industry surprised by the job Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, F. Gary Gray did with Straight out of Compton. They are just surprised. It shows how little they know about this art form and how little they know about us.
CrypticRock.com – That is very true. You mentioned Straight out of Compton. It is one of the number one films in America right now.
Chuck D – Well, it is telling a true story. It has all the things Hollywood can green light. It has drama, it’s got sex, it’s got star appeal, it has violence if you want to say that, all those things going on. It is a story that needs to be shown and told.
CrypticRock.com – Absolutely, Public Enemy recently released their thirteenth record at the end of July, Man Plans God Laughs. What was the writing and recording process like behind this latest record?
Chuck D – Myself and Gary G-Wiz were influenced by things like Run the Jewels with El-P and Killer Mike, Yeezus (2013) by Kanye West. Also with the job that Kendrick Lamar had done, a combination of a lot of different things. My inspiration comes from RAPstation.com, which is our ten channel Hip Hop network. We are the best, if you go to RAPstation.com and get the app, you will see we are playing the past, present, and future of Hip Hop like no other. I have been doing that for the last seven or eight years, the curation and serving of Rap music and Hip Hop. Then Gary G-Wiz uses his ability and his sonic situations, we come together and do a Public Enemy record once every eight years: Apocalypse 91… The Enemy Strikes Black (1991), There’s a Poison Goin’ On (1999), How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul? (2007), and then in 2015, Man Plans, God Laughs.
CrypticRock.com – This new record, as always, is filled with a lot of great, potent lyrics. You really bring forth a strong message here, as someone who has been in the Rap industry for a long time knows how to do.
Chuck D – Well, my thing is like this. I try to set a standard, and lyrically, myself and Gary try to set a standard for where a fifty-five year old MC should go when it comes down the Hip Hop and rhyming about certain things. This is the point of view we came up with. Sparse, words that came less frequently, but were more powerful. Coming up with that sparse style is something that shows that, in my age category, it could be a new way for others to follow. Either they are going to get to fifty-five or they are not.
CrypticRock.com – Right, and the other thing which stands out about Public Enemy is that you also bring a visual to the plate to people as well, with your music videos and your album artwork. You recently released a video for “No Sympathy for the Devil” and “Mine Again.” Are the visuals that go with the music very important for you?
Chuck D – Yes, the visuals are important. I think today, the template goes like this – music is determined by sound, sight, style, and story. We feel that is how people receive their music today, especially the younger audiences. They may not even prioritize it like that. It might be about the story- “What’s this cat about?” Then it might be about the style – “What style is reflected?” Then it might be sight- “How are they lookin’?” Last might be sound of their favorite recording artist. We come from an area where sight, story, sound, and style come from a different vantage point. It depends on what we are trying to convey or what year it was, but we definitely knew that these were four elements that couldn’t be ignored with the presentation of music.
CrypticRock.com – Great point, things have really changed the way people process things, like you said; especially the younger generation.
Chuck D – Yes, things changed. Every year changes, and that is the beauty about time. When it changes, you have to know how to move with it, or if it ain’t good, you need to know how to answer to it and be able to come up with your own prognosis.
CrypticRock.com – Right. You have been able to do that and adapt with the times, and you are very active with the Internet and such.
Chuck D – You can adapt with the times, but also important, too – you have to be realistic with the times. You have to also know – if there is a truck that went off the road, that doesn’t mean you have to go off the road, too.
CrypticRock.com – Yes, of course, absolutely. You have embraced the internet and you have used it to your advantage with Public Enemy to bring the message to the people through the Internet.
Chuck D – Yes, it was necessary because television and radio in the mainstream wasn’t adhering to us, so we had to be able to come up with something that was going to work for us. Public Enemy released the first MP3 album of the genre in 1999 with There’s a Poison Goin’ On. We wanted to set a precedent, and here we are in 2015 and everyone is here. My only thing that I want to do is this- can we actually show the way and provide service? For the group that is already in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame museum, you have to go back to the genre and say you want people to look at N.W.A. like Led Zeppelin, or at Public Enemy like we are The Rolling Stones.
CrypticRock.com – It should be all the same, music is music, right? Hip Hop should be considered a separate genre, but to me, music is music. That is the way it should be looked at.
Chuck D – Yes, and then I think the most important thing with music is: can you make it performance art? Can you take what you have made in the studio and make it live for real? That is the beauty about it. If you go check out The Rolling Stones, or Crosby, Stills and Nash, or The O’Jays, that is not just about the recording, but it is about the environment. They present an event and we followed that. It is not anything that is a shortcut. We think there are also other acts that follow that as well, such as De La Soul and people like that. We champion them.
CrypticRock.com – Agreed 100%. Since you have always been very open and honest about your opinions and everything, it seems like right now there is this overwhelming sense of political correctness going on, where it seems that no one really has open, honest discussions about the important issues.
Chuck D – Nobody wants to make a bad step because in the media, bad news is news. Bad news is the only news, and the only hood news is no good news. I say that in the song, “Man Plans God Laughs.” You have a lot of people who are seriously afraid to take the step of saying something that may be wrong or right. They know how the media is, if they make a misstep. In a way, it is some kind of digital McCarthyism in a way, censoring what people might feel that they have to say.
CrypticRock.com – With that, there is no progress when you are censoring what people are feeling and what they have to say.
Chuck D – Well, before, if people couldn’t say it, then the arts would come out and say something to it. When people are being censored in the arts, that poses another question of,”Do we live in a free society?”
CrypticRock.com – Very true, my last question actually pertains to Horror movies. We cover all types of music on the site, but we also cover movies, particularly Horror and Science Fiction movies. Are you are a fan of either of those genres, and do you have any favorites?
Chuck D – I come from the ’60s, so my choices are really traditional, basic, organic stuff like The Twilight Zone series. Night of the Living Dead (1968) was something that scared me when it came out, but that is light years from Horror flicks that came out after that. Night of the Living Dead started it all.
CrypticRock.com – Yes, it certainly did. Look at how big the whole theme of zombies is now with The Walking Dead and everything.
Chuck D – Yes, right. My opinion is like this- I like the Horror flicks that came up with something that scared you with a few cameras, studio tricks, and a script, as opposed to knowing it had to have a big budget to blow you out of your head. You hear stories, like how the people who have been watching films for the last twenty-five to forty years are not going for the old tricks, to be shocked and amazed. They have to actually see the head getting chopped off and blood coming out of the knife and all that. There was something to suspense of how it was handled.
CrypticRock.com – Of course, there is no substitute for good dialogue and a tense atmosphere when it comes to a good Horror movie.
Chuck D – Yes, well, the Horror movie that is taking place now is Donald Trump. They are saying he is going to be president of the United States. That’s what you can print as my answer – Donald Trump becoming President of the United States is the Horror flick that is unseen.